Menasha, WI Paper Mill Explosion, Aug 1888




NEENAH, Wis., Aug. 23. - At 12 o'clock last night the large paper mill owned by George Whiting, situated on the island between this city and Menasha, was destroyed by fire. While the burning structure was surrounded by a crowd of spectators the battery of boilers exploded. The roof and the walls were thrown outward, sending a shower of bricks and timbers among the spectators. Eighteen persons were killed, seven severely injured, and a number less seriously hurt.

The mill was a three-story structure, built four years ago at a cost of $100,000, and was operated day and night. When the flames broke out about 50 men were in the building. The fire alarm brought several hundred people to the spot, who crowded as close to the burning building as the intense heat would permit. About 1:30 o'clock, while the building was a mass of flames, the explosion occurred without warning. The roof of the building was thrown upward and outward, the walls of brick crumbled and crashed into the street, and in an instant scores of men were buried by the heavy debris. There was a moment of silence and then a cry of horror went up from the multitude. The first strong impulse to fly from possible further danger was soon overcome, and hundreds began the work of recovering the bodies of the dead and rescuing and caring for the injured. Body after body was found, crushed and mangled by the great timbers and masonry almost beyond recognition, and then removed to the City Hall. The injured were carried to neighboring residences or to their homes as soon as their identity could be established.

The loss on the building is $100,000; insurance $52,000.

The fire caught in the boiler room in a large quantity of fuel, shavings, &c. The fireman, Peter Nelson, had been out during the evening, and a friend had worked for him. About 12 o'clock he went from his post to get a drink of water, and on looking back into the boiler room found flames among the piles of shavings. Before he could get the hose or pull the whistle to give the alarm, the flames rushed through the room and drove him out. When the Fire Department arrived and began playing upon the fire the mill was doomed.

The immense revolving bleach was in the heating room adjoining the fireroom. It was filled with straw and rags. When the roof over the heating room fell in the firemen turned the hose over the bleach, and instantly an explosion occurred and 10 tons of boiler debris shot out of the building and across a sidetrack through a throng of spectators, mowing them down like grass. The immense mass of iron shot out into an open lot 200 feet away. In its passage it struck the heads of the onlooking bystanders, and nearly all the killed and injured were hit on the head. The scene was indescribable. The blow, so sudden and crushing, stunned those it did not kill and maim. But presence of mind soon prevailed, and strong men hastened to the relief of the wounded and cared for the dead. The cause of the calamity is traced directly to the iron bleach. It is said that this was full of steam and rags and had become superheated. When the cold water from the fire engines struck it the explosion followed instantly.

Seven of the killed were coopers by trade and were all employed in the same factory. A list of the dead, so far as obtained, is as follows:


GILBERT MERICLE, foreman of C. R. Smith's cooper's shop; leaves a wife and five small children.

LOUIS RESCH, cooper; leaves a wife and three children.

JACOB VETTER, cooper; leaves a wife and three children.

JOHN HOFFMAN, cooper; leaves a wife and three children.

H. KNELKE, cooper; leaves a wife and three children.

M. MUNTNER, leaves a wife and six children.

JOHN MOORE, cooper; single.

F. SANDOVER, employe of Smith's pail factory; wife and one child.

JOHN WEAVER; wife and four children.

WILLIAM BUBILTZE, Jr., 15-year-old son of William Bubiltze, a leading merchant.

F. SCHIFFER, a Milwaukee and Northern Railway employe; single.

J. NEL; single.


S. LIEBHAUSER; single.

Those badly injured and who may probably die are:


MYRON FISHER, leg broken in two places and internal injuries.

CARL SCHIFFER, arm broken.

THOMAS JOURDAIN, hip smashed and internal injuries.

AUGUST HECKNER, head injured.

JOHN SCHMITZER, side injured.

F. HELBACH, bruised badly.

MICHAEL ZOMOLOZSKY, bruised badly.

A number of men, women, and boys were also injured by being hit by missles from the explosion, but none except those whose names are mentioned are seriously wounded. All of the killed will be buried at the city's expense, as they are all in poor circumstances, and some of the families of the killed are almost destitute. Mayor Lawson had appointed a committee to solicit aid for the families of the killed, and already a good deal of money has been subscribed.

Every factory in the city is closed to-day and will remain so until after the burials. Flags are at half mast on all the public buildings. The City Council held a meeting to-night for the purpose of taking action in regard to the funerals, which will probably occur Sunday.

The New York Times, New York, NY 24 Aug 1888